Saturday, May 07, 2011

Thoughts on Alternative Medicine

Last week I happened to visit Kolli hills in the eastern ghats of Tamil Nadu, accompanying a friend who was deploying an IT solution for a rural health care non-profit called Isha foundation. While the cool mountain air was in itself an incentive, a welcome break from the Thanjavur summer, the trip was interesting in many other ways.

Isha Foundation has a unique approach to health care; as part of the Ayush program, they try to combine Indian traditional medicine with modern practices. It got me thinking about where I stand on the issue of using altenate medicine. As a philosophy I whole-heartedly buy the guiding principle of these systems, which as I understand, is to empower the body to fight illnesses rather than curing the disease or symptom directly. With its recent emphasis on preventive-promotive practises, I believe that modern medicine is going down this path too.

However, here are reasons I am unsettled by traditional practices
  •  Methodology: Alternative schools of medicine so overwhelmingly rely on axioms - Ayurveda's chakras, homoeopathy's dynamisation/potentisation - which by their very definitions become inherently unverifiable using conventional scientific approaches. Some even claim this transcendental pretensions to be the strong points of these systems. 
  •  Faith: These schools rely on their practitioners' and followers' faith. There are several consequences of that mentality. For one, the onus of proof is on the skeptic. Conversely, any literature in these fields, as I gather, seem to be guided by strong confirmation biases because proponents seem to have reached their conclusions even before they have started the research. That's another reason why anecdotal evidence is so rife; everybody's got an uncle whose cancer miraculously disappeared! Faith also leads people to believe that there are no side-effects in alternative therapies. I would be very surprised if Ayurveda's reliance of heavy metals such as Arsenic and Mercury is completely healthy. 
  •  Lack of openness: I'll be the first to admit that I'm a critic of several aspects of modern medicine. Antibiotic overdose, short-term curative approaches, influence of pharmaceutical companies etc deserve our disdain. Yet, science did come up with vaccination for small-pox, cure for polio, unbelievably complicated surgical practices, none of which were cracked by the all-knowing traditional systems for thousands of years. Somehow, all traditional practices seem to aspire for glory by disparaging modern medicine (including by using that condescending term 'Allopathy'). Empirical skepticism towards science is healthy and necessary, disdain is dangerous.
  •  Talent: Let's face it, traditional systems are not great at attracting talented people. How many of the smart folks (if intelligence is too subjective, think "perseverant" , "industrious", "resourceful" or any other adjective of your choice) you know from school actually wanted to go to and eventually went to these courses? The most passionate followers of Ayurveda and Homoeopathy that I personally know, I suspect, would advice their kids to take up MBBS over BMS if they are ever in a position to make that choice. What chance does that give these systems to produce a vibrant community of researchers and innovators?
Having said that, I'm not going to dismiss any system that's survived thousands of years, and by all accounts, at least in its beginnings, was based on solid foundations. What endeavours like Isha Ayush will do is to vitalize those disciplines. With its systematic approach of data collection, it might even put an end to many of the debates one way or the other. Most of all, by creating a demand for professionals, it will force the supply-side to respond by attracting talented people its way. Those reasons are enough for me to be excited.
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